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People & Ideas

Jan 27, 2011

What does Australia Day mean for the 'iPod generation'?

Most of my peers don’t buy into the pageantry of Australia Day. They might enjoy their day off, get drunk on Aussie beer and wine and eat lamb, pavlova and lamingtons, but they’re uncomfortable with conspicuous nationalism.

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Yesterday I saw a young woman walking down the street wearing an Australian flag bucket hat bearing the logo of a Murdoch-owned newspaper. Another young woman was sporting an Australian flag bikini. A little odd on an inner-city street, to be sure. Still, it was summer; it was Australia Day… But the striking thing was that she’d also painted her entire body green and gold.

Several days earlier, Australia had awarded Corporal Ben Roberts-Smith its most exalted military honour, the Victoria Cross. Roberts-Smith told reporters, “I do what I do because I believe in the country that we live in.”

In his speech, Opposition Leader Tony Abbott noted that while 64 VCs were awarded among the 1st AIF of 330,000 soldiers, and 20 among the 2nd AIF of 500,000, our Afghanistan deployment of only 15,000 has already won two VCs.

“So it seems that the iPod generation can equal the silent movies one!” concluded Abbott jocularly.

Roberts-Smith is 32; Trooper Mark Donaldson was 29 when he was awarded the Victoria Cross in 2009. The “iPod generation” is my generation, too – and that body-painted girl’s.

Increasingly, public discourse is demanding that Australians hold their nationality dear – that they be explicitly ‘proud’. Australia Day is a carnival of consuming nationalism: shops sell all manner of flag-emblazoned merch and copious barbecue provender, while Sam Kekovich spruiks lamb.

The more simplistic strands of nationalism hold that if you have any reservations about the racial and socioeconomic privilege that enables this ‘Aussie pride’ to be so boldly expressed, you must be ‘guilty’ or ‘ashamed’.

But I don’t believe you need to put your life on the line to show your love for your country. Nor do you need to dress up like a cast member of X-Men Origins: Jingoism.

I’m not alone. Most of my peers don’t buy into the pageantry of Australia Day. They might enjoy their day off, get drunk on Aussie beer and wine and eat lamb, pavlova and lamingtons, but they’re uncomfortable with conspicuous nationalism.

That’s not necessarily because, as Gerard Henderson argues, they’re ashamed of celebrating the anniversary of indigenous dispossession, having been brainwashed by a guilt-stricken intelligentsia.

Rather, some younger Australians are questioning the increasing belligerence and divisiveness of nationalist sentiment, as well as its exploitation for politics and profit.

These people use their online social networks to talk about Australia’s sporting and cultural achievements – for example, celebrating Jacki Weaver’s Oscar nomination, or bemoaning the woeful fortunes of the Australian cricket team.

However, they also use Facebook and Twitter to express their reservations. Many of my friends agreed enthusiastically with David Koch’s op-ed. They were pleased and surprised to hear their own feelings echoed by cosy establishment darling Kochie.

They’re also keen to draw distinctions between ‘discerning’, introspective nationalism and its ‘vulgar’, extroverted cousin – epitomised by Australian flag and Southern Cross decorations and merchandise, and slogans aggressively addressing newcomers to this country.

“They ought to reschedule Australia Day so that it doesn’t clash with F-ckwits Draped In Flags Day,” tweeted Tim Sterne). “I remember when it was considered quintessentially Australian to mock the solemn pieties of US-style nationalism. Times have changed.”

Meanwhile, Cate Lawrence, who runs sustainability advocacy group Green Renters, wrote on Facebook: “Happy Australia Day! Eat some locally grown food, drink some Australian wine and don’t buy all that sweatshop plastic flag cr-p.”

Several years ago, when I was working for triple j magazine, we were putting together a special commemorative poster for that year’s Hottest 100 countdown. The countdown is always ceremoniously broadcast on Australia Day, so we put a callout online for readers to send us photos of their Australia Day celebrations, for inclusion in the poster.

Most of the images we received depicted young people having barbecues, drinking beer and horsing around in parks, backyards and swimming pools. The majority were not tricked out in nationalist drag – the exception being a group linked to racist boneheads Southern Cross Soldiers. (We didn’t use their photos in our poster.)

However, at the Big Day Out music festival I’ve increasingly noticed Australian flag imagery shifting from a belligerent, antisocial statement to a casual costume. As I noted this time last year, if you asked these kids to define ‘the nation’, could they? Or is a flag just what they feel is called for on the day – like a suit to a formal event, or a Santa hat to the work Christmas party?

Importantly, Tony Abbott’s ‘iPod generation’ varies wildly in its degree of intellectual and political engagement with the issues surrounding Australia Day. For us, being Australian is not as simple as being ‘proud’ or ‘ashamed’; it ranges from being something we don’t consider relevant at all to something we strongly believe deserves considered thought.

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